Barbarians and idiots

April 20, 2014 1 Comment

Thracian gold

It’s Saturday evening, and the three of us are sitting round the kitchen table after a meal, with the remains of a bottle of cheap but perfectly good red wine from Bulgaria.  Its label says, ‘from the Thracian lowlands’.

A. recalls that he went to Bulgaria on holiday, many years ago, in communist times.  All menus in restaurants there consisted of just four choices of dish, for everyone, everywhere  – unless, presumably, you were lucky enough to belong to the Bulgarian equivalent of the nomenklatura.  Highly egalitarian, then, but maybe a little monotonous. The wine, though, was tolerable.

Thrace has produced good wines since ancient times.  The region – it straddles areas of present-day European Turkey and north-eastern Greece as well as Bulgaria – could boast a rich and advanced material culture, some of it brought to this country the British Museum’s big Thrace exhibition of 1976. To the Greeks, though, the Thracians, for all their accomplishments, were just another set of ‘barbaroi’, or barbarians. ‘Barbarians’, though, not in the modern sense of uncivilised or inhumane people, but just people who didn’t happen to speak Greek – they mouthed incomprehensible, ‘ba ba ba’, words.  No doubt that made them in some sense inferior, for some Greeks, but not for everyone.  The historian Herodotus, arguably the first anthropological writer, held many non-Greek peoples in the highest regard, and was famously non-judgemental in his remarks on them and their cultures and practices.

According to Herodotus the populous Thracians, if they’d been able to unite, would have been a powerful political force, but their constituent tribes could never agree.  He tells us about one tribe, the Getae, who believed that they were immortal. When they died they went to live with the god Salmoxis.  Every five years they sent a messenger to ask Salmoxis for whatever it was they wanted.  The suitability of the messenger was tested is an interesting way.  He was tossed in the air and landed on the collected spear points of his colleagues: if he died, he was safely on his way to the god; if he survived there was something wrong with him and he was replaced by another.  Among another Thracian group, when a husband died his favoured wife was killed and placed on his grave; the others, dishonoured, suffered accordingly.  Some Tracians allow girls complete freedom to go with the men they chose, though wives, bought at a high price from their parents, are strictly regulated.   These and other observations Herodotus relates without suggesting that the Thracians, just because they were different (they did have a reputation for fierceness, and for being red-headed), were in any way ‘inferior’ to his fellow-Greeks.

We moved on to talk about other ancient Greek words that have developed different, more derogatory meanings in modern times.  The one that came to mind immediately was ‘idiotes’, the ancestor of our word idiot.  All it meant was someone who kept himself to himself – a private person, one who holds no public office or has no professional knowledge.



But in a democracy like Athens this was more serious than it might seem to us.  If you were a citizen – it was different if you were unfortunate enough to be a woman, a slave or a metic (a foreign worker) – someone who didn’t participate in public life was potentially a problem.  If you were well off there was an expectation that you would use some of your wealth for the common good.  An institution called the ‘leitourgia’ or liturgy meant that wealthy people were expected to pay for certain public goods, especially providing a chorus or other services in dramatic and religious festivals, or equipping a trireme or navy warship.  This amounted to a kind of more-than-voluntary sponsorship.  Even if you were a person of modest or no means you had a duty to contribute to the institutions of the state, like the supreme political body, the Assembly, or the legal juries (which tended to be large).

Someone who withheld this kind of public participation and devoted himself entirely to amassing wealth or cultivating his private interests was clearly regarded with some suspicion.  The Athenian leader Pericles, in his famous Funeral Speech during the first year of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC has this to say on the subject, according the War’s historian, Thucydides (in Rex Warner’s translation):

Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people … We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about.  As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it.  Here each individual is interesting not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics – this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.

Quite how ‘idiotes’ became coarsened in meaning to our word ‘idiot’ – Chambers offers the definitions ‘foolish or unwise person; a person having the lowest level of intellectual ability’ – isn’t clear.

But I can’t help feeling that something worthwhile has been lost.  Could something of the original Greek meaning and its negative, socially damaging connotation, I wonder, be restored to our contemporary speech?  Because there’s no doubt that we’ve need of it.


Amazon Swansea

Our equivalents of the selfish and unconcerned citizens Pericles excoriated are the multinational companies and their owners, senior managers and acolytes, the bankers, the privatised utility bosses and ‘oligarchs’ (apt name!) who consider it acceptable to receive governments inducements and subsidies while sucking as much wealth as they can from their activities, exporting it, and appropriating it for themselves. (Amazon is an excellent example: despite annual sales of over £4bn this company pays almost no corporation tax in the UK; on the other hand, it received over £16m in grants from the Welsh Government to set up its ‘fulfilment centre’ near Swansea.)

The wealth these organisations and individuals amass, when compared with the resources most people can command, is staggering, and still rapidly growing.  Yet they think it quite proper to reduce their tax liability to the minimum their lawyers can arrange for them, or even to evade taxes altogether.  They ignore that fact that they could not extract their riches unless the state – the public – pay for the education, health and well-being of the workers they employ and the consumers of their services and products.  They themselves bypass the social, health and educational systems the rest of society uses, and buy valuable privileges for themselves and their children. Their failure to play their proper part in our social world casts doubt on how far we can call it democratic.

Perhaps we should begin to refer to these people as ‘idiots’ – in the original, derogatory Greek sense.  Even better, ‘barbaric idiots’, since they so obviously fail to speak the same social language as the rest of us.

Comments (1)

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  1. Stavros Macrakis says:

    Hi, your discussion of “idiotes” starts out reasonably, but then seems to say that the ancient Athenians considered “idiotes” to be a derogatory term. As far as I can tell, that is not true — the derogatory meaning came much later.

    As for the passage from the Funeral Oration:

    this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man
    who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his
    own business; we say that he has no business here at all.

    interestingly, it does not use the word idiotes at all, but rather says τ​ον μηδ​εν τῶνδε [​​τῶν πολιτικῶν] μετέχοντα​, that is, ‘those who aren’t involved in it [i.e. politics]’.

    It is clear that the ancient Athenians expected citizens (polites) to be involved in civic affairs, but as far as I can tell, they did not use the word idiotes to mean ‘those who are not involved in civic life’, but only ‘people as private citizens’ as opposed to ‘officials’ or ‘the city as a whole’. Thucydides in particular mentions several times “both the city (polis) and the individuals (idiotes)”.

    See the relevant section of the Wikipedia article on ‘idiot’ (, which I have recently updated, with sources.


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